Experimenting with this new schedule of readings has been an interesting journey since we started with creation back in September. We have moved in what has seemed at times at a fast pace through the ancient history of God’s relationship with God’s people. From September through December we heard God’s Word from ten different books of Old Testament stories, history, and prophecy. That’s highly unusual in the more common ecumenical calendar of readings. It’s highly unusual for many Christians today, to spend that much time soaking in in the stories of God’s people, the stories Jesus grew up hearing, believing, and interpreting for himself out of the Hebrew Bible.
Around Christmas we moved into the New Testament, reading exclusively from the gospel according to John, another highly unusual move. In the usual three year cycle of readings John barely gets nod. The prologue “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” is a traditional Christmas reading. The story of the Wedding at Cana appears occasionally, if there’s enough time between Christmas and Easter to fit it in. John’s discourses show up in Easter season readings, but that’s about it. The rest of John, this very unique telling of the good news of Jesus, is largely overlooked in the regular reading and preaching of Scripture in tool so commonly used in churches. So spending the last four months reading exclusively from John has been an interesting journey, for me for sure, and I hope for you. And by interesting, I mean, at times really hard.
John writes in a very different way. There are many layers of meaning in his words. He has these famous stories like Jesus meeting the woman and that well when he speaks to her enigmatically about water he can give her that will quench her thirst eternally. He uses countless names and metaphors for himself to help set his purpose, his blessing in the experience of the people among whom he is ministering. I think, but I can’t say for sure, Jesus claims more unique names for himself in the gospel according to John than any of the other gospels in the New Testament. I didn’t count the ones in Matthew, Mark, and Luke to confirm this, but I did count the ones in John.
Jesus calls himself by nineteen different names or titles in John’s gospel, well, 20 if you consider that even just answers to “Jesus.” In this gospel he calls himself:
The Son of Man, the Son, the Son of God, God’s Son,
The bread of life, the bread that came down from heaven, the living bread,
The light of the world,
the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd,
the way, the truth, the life
the true vine, the resurrection
Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth,
Nineteen different names, but not once does he do what his opponents at the crucifixion accuse him of - - call himself “The King of the Jews.” He never said that. He never said it. Did others say it about it? Most certainly. In the sixth chapter of John, just after the feeding of the five thousand, we heard that Jesus withdrew to a mountain by himself because the people were coming at him, trying to take him by force to make him king. Instead of standing before them and accepting their dubious honor, he tried to lose them in hills. During his trial before Pontius Pilate, the emperor’s representative asks him point blank if he claims to be the king; Jesus both dodges the question with another question and insists that he is anything but the king of an earthly people “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” But he never said it as the requested sign did. He never claimed to be the King of the Jews.
What’s happening here isn’t really anything new - - this attempt by human beings to pin our expectations to God. We’ve been doing it for centuries. Who am I kidding? We’ve been doing it from the beginning of creation. We have been trying to box God in, make God into our image, force God’s hand, and get what we want from God, when we want it, however we can for more generations than we can count. Our trip through the Scriptures shows us this. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, resorted to deceit and trickery to manipulate God’s blessing from his father. The Israelites demanded bread and meat from God in the wilderness. In the period of the judges, after God’s people entered the Promised Land, they start begging for a king to lead them, a king to make them look like the nations around them. They get what they ask for - - kings after corrupt kings, who lead them right into sinfulness just like the nations around them. The people of God are constantly pinning our own expectations on God, trying to mold God into something that is comfortable, familiar, and maybe if we’re honest someone who is going to get us what we want when we want it.
Jesus put up with this all through John. There were the attempts to make him king that I mentioned before and that we began our worship today remembering. There were times when he seemed resistant to being put on display as a miracle worker or healer. Remember when he was thrust into public ministry, maybe before he was ready, by his mother who knew he could solve the problem of dwindling wine at a wedding. “My hour has not yet come,” (2:4) Jesus insisted, but Mary wouldn’t take no for an answer. Two chapters later when the royal official came to Jesus seeking healing for his son, Jesus laments, ““Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (4:48).
He could do these things, and he did do them, but the sense is that they are more about what the people want from him than about what he came to do and to be. In fact, when writing his gospel John goes to great lengths to tell us that these signs and wonders aren’t an end in themselves; they are a means to an end, a way to point to the nature and God in Jesus. They are a way to show us what God is all about – the relentless pursuit of abundant life.
This problem from the ancient world has followed God’s people through history. We do the same thing even today. We want God to smite our enemies the way we hear about in the Old Testament. We try to sneak special favors, special blessings beyond the “enough” that we have already been given. We want to turn Jesus into a miracle worker who will do our bidding, a healer who will remove all the pain of human existence, a king of our causes, too. We try to pin all sorts of opinions, political, social, and economic, on Jesus. It doesn’t matter if we’re liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, Republican, Democrat, or Independent. We all have a tendency to want to try to find support for our ideas, our understandings, and our beliefs in the person and words of Jesus, and usually we’re successful. Right? Somehow we’re all successful at the same time, finding support for opposite opinions in the same person, and we pin our results to Jesus. We nail them on the cross over his head. Our attempts to make him fit our selfish desires and designs, our attempts to make him king of our world, are ultimately what bring him to his death.
But he went willingly. In John’s gospel he knew early on that what he was doing, that what he was saying, was bringing him step by step closer to his death. The Pharisees are plotting against him from early on. But still he persisted, still he showed, that even when we try to make him into something he isn’t, even when we try to just get what we want or what we think we need, Jesus is with us in love. Jesus is with us saving us from ourselves. Jesus is the one who brings us close to God not by meeting our every expectation, but solely by the grace of God.
In fact it seems to be in spite of our expectations (our expectations that bring him death.) It seems to be in spite of everything we try to make him that he doesn’t intend to be (the king riding on the donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!”). He still love us in spite of ourselves and his love take him to the cross because of the things we nailed to him.
He still loves us.
We have made the turn into Holy Week today. We have made the turn into one of the darkest weeks of worship in our faith tradition when we remember the night Jesus was betrayed, when we hear the words describing his painful crucifixion and death, when we wonder out loud what it means that God died. We have taken the first steps into this time of holy remembrance and it could be easy to get lost in the pain and sorrow and guilt and sadness. But we don’t need to. We don’t need to be overcome by the darkness, because pulsing through it all is the most important truth of all - - He still loves us.
May our journeys into this dark, Holy Week be blessed with God’s love in Jesus, the light of the world.
photo credit: lanier67 via photopin cc